From Jean-Michel Basquiat to Georgia O’Keeffe, 8 Artists Who Are Style Icons

Alexxa Gotthardt
Oct 18, 2017 10:28PM

Artists pour their wildest dreams and deepest emotions into their work. Often, the same could be said for their wardrobes: sartorial evidence of not only their aesthetics, but also their internal spirits. “Beauty and ugliness are a mirage,” Frida Kahlo once said. “Everyone ends up seeing how we are inside.”

Below, we consider eight artists whose unique personal styles reveal something essential about their characters, in some cases becoming inextricable from their artistic personas, and which continue to serve as inspiration for the fashion world. From Georgia O’Keeffe and Jean-Michel Basquiat to Louise Bourgeois and Robert Mapplethorpe, these artists have doubled as haute couture muses and style icons.

Nickolas Muray
Frida with Magenta Rebozo, 1939
Bentley Gallery
Nickolas Muray
Frida, Pink/Green Blouse, Coyoacon, 1938
Bentley Gallery

Kahlo’s flamboyant, colorful style reflected her interior self: strong, complex, and wholly unique. The painter’s accessories and attire—crowns of flowers, elaborate silver jewelry, dresses saturated with the deep hues of her native Mexico—take center stage in her searing self-portraits and remain instantly recognizable many years after her death, in 1954.

Early physical trauma from a bout of polio and a tram accident left Kahlo’s legs uneven, a condition that she concealed beneath heavily patterned traditional Mexican dresses. The frocks also held conceptual significance for Kahlo; they originated in the Tehuantepec region, which was known for its matriarchal society, run by strong women.

She took to accentuating her most identifiable physical characteristics, too. She darkened her already thick eyebrows, which her husband Diego Rivera once described as “hummingbird’s wings,” with a black pencil, and adorned her hair with colorful ribbons and flowers plucked from her garden.

These details have become inseparable from her revolutionary work and fiery, free-spirited persona. Together, these qualities have inspired fashion designers from Riccardo Tisci to Dolce & Gabbana to Jean Paul Gaultier, whose Spring-Summer 1998 collection was an unmistakable homage to the painter.


In the 1980s cult film Downtown 81, Basquiat careens through New York City streets with his signature dreadlocks tied in a knot, an oversized coat draped over his shoulders, and a red collared shirt peeking out under his chin. Occasionally, he’ll pull a can of spray paint from one of his deep pockets and decorate a wall with street poetry.

The wunderkind Neo-Expressionist painter is famous for embedding a vast range of art historical and cultural references into his paintings, from abstract gestures borrowed from Cy Twombly to the language of graffiti and hip-hop that he picked up in his native Brooklyn. His wardrobe was equally eclectic—and inspired. Costume designer John Dunn, who crafted the wardrobe for the 1996 biopic Basquiat, once described the artist’s style as “retro meets hip-hop, meets preppy, meets divine inspiration.”

Whether in his studio or stepping out at one of his favorite haunts, like Mudd Club, Basquiat combined worn Adidas tees with $800 European suits, paint-splattered jeans with tailored jackets, polos with sweatpants. His look caught the eye of designer Rei Kawakubo, who had him walk for Comme des Garçons in 1987—and he has inspired the personal styles of countless designers, stylists, and club kids since.

In one snapshot of Mapplethorpe, embedded in the pages of Judy Linn’s 2011 book of photos, Patti Smith 1969–1976, about the circle surrounding Smith, he’s seen lighting a cigarette while wearing only leather underwear, a chain necklace, and a bondage cuff as a bracelet. The young photographer was known throughout the galleries, watering holes, and gay clubs he frequented—from Max’s Kansas City to Mineshaft—for his raw, stylized portraits of flowers, bondage, and downtown New York’s brightest young things.

His personal style, which he captured in numerous self-portraits, stood out, too. In his younger days, he often poses shirtless, wearing thick silver rings and long necklaces adorned with beads and shells, his curly hair loose and wild. In later photos, his hair is slicked back and his muscular body often sheathed in leather—a look that nods equally to 1950s greaser style and the trappings of S&M.

Vogue has noted synchronicities between Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic and clothing created by Hedi Slimane, Alexander Wang, and Shayne Oliver’s Hood by Air, while Raf Simons explicitly cited the photographer’s look in his Spring 2017 collection (the corresponding runway show used models who looked suspiciously like Mapplethorpe, too).

Steve Wood
Nr. 8 – M, 1981
Annie Leibovitz
Andy Warhol, New York City, 1976
Bernheimer Fine Art

In 2012, When Vogue scoured its archives for mentions of Warhol within the pages of the magazine, they didn’t have to look hard. Their search turned up almost 1,000 results—many of which positioned Warhol as a trendsetter, in the realms of both art and fashion.

Had you been walking through downtown New York in the early 1960s, you might have spotted the Pop Art god by his mop of platinum blond hair and his Ray-Ban Wayfarers. Over time, he added clear-rimmed glasses, wide-striped tees, and safari jackets to his repertoire—all accessories which GQ has credited Warhol for popularizing. He wore these outfits to the raucous parties he hosted in his silver-painted studio, The Factory, which became the stomping grounds of the era’s most experimental and fabulous creatives, from Twiggy and Basquiat to Madonna and Grace Jones.  

Photo by Ben Pruchnie via Getty Images.

Catch a glimpse of performance artist and musician Ono on the streets of New York today, and she’ll likely be dressed in a tailored black ensemble, set off with a matching derby hat and a pair of sunglasses—an accessory she routinely sports even when it’s overcast, or she finds herself indoors. While this mix of dark, face-obscuring accessories might render most wearers incognito, it’s become Ono’s trademark uniform, instantly recognizable by the artist’s fans, who span the art, music, and fashion worlds. (Designers threeASFOUR drew directly from Ono’s art and style for their Spring/Summer 2010 collection.)

Ono’s style has been the subject of pop cultural conversation since the 1960s, when she became known for her physically demanding Fluxus performances (like her seminal 1964 Cut Piece, in which she invited strangers to cut her hair and clothes off her body) and her relationship with Beatles idol John Lennon. Then, as now, she wore primarily black and white—the colors she most often uses in her drawings, books, and sculptural installations.

Much of Ono’s work has been inspired by anti-war protest and the ideal of peace, communicated through the color white. Famously, she and Lennon wore white pajamas in their 1969 Bed-In performances, which they conceived as demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

Yousuf Karsh
Georgia O'Keeffe, 1956
Beetles + Huxley

When O’Keeffe was 96 years old, she ordered her last suit: an impeccably designed all-black ensemble—featuring a matching jacket, pants, and vest—from the famous men’s tailor, Emsley.

Throughout her life, O’Keeffe cultivated a personal style that was as elegant and daring as her iconic paintings depicting close-ups of turgid flowers and saturated, sulfurous desert landscapes. Like her artwork, her wardrobe challenged stylistic norms of the time. She tossed aside form-augmenting dresses decorated with feminine details (colorful patterns, intricate lace), in favor of loose-fitting, unadorned tunics and menswear crafted in a restrained palette.

During her early years in Texas and New York, O’Keeffe stuck to minimal black and white dresses, shirts, and skirts, occasionally throwing her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s cape over her shoulders. After moving to New Mexico, her wardrobe became still more androgynous, consisting primarily of simple wrap dresses (some of which she designed herself), blue jeans, suits, kimonos, and her signature vaquero cowboy hat.

O’Keeffe’s minimalist, nonconforming style would go on to influence fashion designers for years to come. In 1984, Calvin Klein crafted an entire collection around her aesthetic, then had Bruce Weber shoot the corresponding campaign at her New Mexico home, Ghost Ranch, in Abiquiú. More recently, magazines like Vogue and designers like Valentino have drawn from her striking wardrobe and carefully curated public persona, which was the subject of a recent exhibition, “Living Modern,” at the Brooklyn Museum.

Yves Manciet
Picasso painting a gothic pitcher, Madoura, Vallauris, 1953
Cahiers d'Art

Legend has it that Picasso, the great progenitor of Cubism, painted in nothing but his boxers. One 1957 photograph by David Douglas Duncan even captures the artist posing majestically in tighty-whities. But, when it comes to sartorial choices, the dashing, bald painter is best known for his closet full of striped shirts.

The navy-and-white smocks, which he donned both inside and outside of his studio walls, originated in the mid-1800s in Brittany, France, where they were part of the French Navy’s official uniform. The stripes that spangled each shirt are thought to have represented the number of Napoleon’s victories. They also made it easy to spot the French seamen from afar.

Picasso’s image was shaped by the casual, masculine signifier of this workwear—the appeal of which hasn’t been lost on the fashion world. Style magazines and blogs, from Vogue to The Sartorialist, routinely cite the artist’s no-frills uniform as inspiration, while the moodboard for Fendi’s Spring 2017 men’s collection centered on photos of the artist’s signature getup.

Photo by Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty Images.

Alex Van Gelder, portrait of Louise Bourgeois. Courtesy of the artist.

Bourgeois’s groundbreaking sculptures, drawings, and performances are often informed by the sexuality and beauty of the female body. Her style, like her work, celebrated femininity and served as a tool she used to “[command] attention in the male-dominated art world of the Seventies,” explains Dr. Alice Blackhurst, a visual studies scholar.

Over the course of her long life, Bourgeois built a wardrobe oriented around prominent accessories: fisherman’s caps and berets, futuristic sunglasses, and thick fur coats that amplified her small frame. Her work evidenced the artist’s belief in the power of clothing to shock, shift perspectives, and seduce. In the 1970s, she forged her first wearable sculptures: latex getups accented with bulges resembling a sea of breasts, which she paraded on city streets.

For her 1978 performance “A Fashion Show of Body Parts,” she dressed both male and female performers in similarly lumpy sheaths. The piece would go on to inform collections by fashion designers Rei Kawakubo and Hussein Chalayan. More recently, young designer Simone Rocha has cited Bourgeois’s aesthetic as inspiration.

Alexxa Gotthardt